Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. –Psalm 91:9-10
by Rachel Brownson
Ok, so this is a lie, right? Can I say that this isn’t true, here in Lent, the season when we’re allowed to feel sad in church?
My grandfather made the LORD his refuge his whole life, immersing himself daily in the word and work of God, trusting his livelihood and his family to God’s provision even when they were just barely scraping by. He wasn’t a perfect guy or a perfect father or a perfect minister, not by any stretch, but trusting in the LORD was what he was best at; anyone who knew him would tell you that.
I was the only family member living near my grandparents in Schenectady, New York while my grandfather was in a terrible nursing home dying of Parkinson’s disease. I was in the middle of Clinical Pastoral Education, spending weekdays working with patients and families on a PICU in Albany. Every Sunday that winter I would go from worship to that nursing home, walk down a hall crowded with the cries of abandoned people, and find my grandparents sitting outside his room: my grandfather almost unreachable, all the humor gone from his face, my grandmother quietly spooning pudding into his mouth. The scourge was not near the tent, it was in the tent and had been for years. His death was not easy or peaceful, and many in our family dealt with post traumatic stress for months or years afterward.
I won’t say that no good came of it. Speaking for myself, I know that this experience was essential to my development as a pastoral caregiver, and it taught me much about what it means to age and die in the context of family. But I would trade all that for a better death for my grandfather. The good didn’t make up for the bad. I don’t think it was God’s plan to reward my grandfather for a lifetime of faithful service with that kind of suffering, just so I could be a better chaplain.
So are the promises of Psalm 91 lies? Is the Bible lying to us?
I’m a chaplain at a pediatric hospital, and one of the things I talk about most with my patients and their families is how almost every human emotion is expressed in the Psalms. By modeling such a broad spectrum of feeling, the Psalms give us permission to feel what we feel and be honest about it with God in our own prayers. In my own devotional reading of the Psalms, they speak more and more to me about one particular emotion that is absolutely central to my experience of faith in the context of suffering, an emotion that is also central to my experience of Lent: longing.
There are times when the promises of Psalm 91—that no evil will befall those who trust in the LORD—are borne out in our lives, blessing us with the sure knowledge of God’s presence and provision. But there are also times when these verses are less a concrete promise about what will or won’t befall us than they are an expression of our deep human longing for safety, for belonging, for protection when the scourge has come near our tent. When the tempter uses Psalm 91 to try to convince Jesus to throw himself off the temple roof, he is tempting Jesus to test this verse as if it were a simple transaction, not a deep and heartfelt prayer, not an expression of God’s love for us. Anyone who has loved God and suffered knows that God is not a vending machine—we don’t input trust and purchase protection in return. If that were the message of Psalm 91, then it would certainly be a lie.
I will be with them in trouble, God says in verse 15. This I know is true, down to my center. It’s because this is true that we can trust in God when our longing for safety is disappointed. And it’s because this is true that Christ could refuse the easy transactional test of this psalm and walk the hard road of the cross, the road of uncertainty, longing, suffering, and yes, of trust. I don’t always want to walk that road with him, but today I will try.
Rachel Brownson is a Reformed Church minister, a writer, and a board certified chaplain at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in the University of Michigan Health System.